Fr. Matthew Widder is more than comfortable in his black clerics and Roman collar, but give him a lasso, cowboy hat, and dancing boots and the shared pastor of Holy Name of Jesus and St. Clement parishes in Sheboygan is admittedly out of his comfort zone.
But that didn’t stop the 33-year-old from Texas two-stepping his way into victory at the Movers and Shakers Gala, a red carpet, black tie fundraising event for Lakeland College, Saturday, May 14, at the college’s Todd Wehr Center.
In addition to he and dance partner and instructor Sue Alby claiming the evening’s trophy, Fr. Widder’s charity of choice, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, will be the 2017 partner charity for the gala and will receive $10,000.
To win the championship, Fr. Widder and Alby bettered seven other dancing duos, comprised of a local “celebrity” and instructor, and was the dancer with a combination of the best judges’ scores and the most purchased votes.
Days after the win, Fr. Widder admitted he’s still in shock, not only over the outcome, but over the fact that he even participated.
“One of my greatest fears in life is dancing,” he admitted in a telephone interview with the Catholic Herald. “Some people say they can’t dance, but when I say I can’t dance, I really can’t dance.”
Persuading him to take part in the annual dancing event was not easy, admitted Kym Leibham, a Holy Name parishioner and alumni and community engagement officer at Lakeland College, a Sheboygan college with an enrollment of about 4,000, affiliated with the United Church of Christ.
Coordinator of the college’s annual gala, Leibham said she was attending one of Fr. Widder’s Masses last summer and said her mind was not completely focused on his homily.
Rather, she said she was amazed at how the rest of the worshippers seemed so drawn to him.
“I was observing how the parishioners were responding to Fr. Matt and I thought to myself, he’d be a great dancer for the gala.”
After Mass ended, she approached him and told him what she had in mind.
“He looked at me like he had just seen a ghost,” Leibham recalled, adding that Fr. Widder mentioned that just the night before, he was at a birthday party when a young man asked him what he is afraid of.
He responded, only two things, relayed Leibham: rats and dancing.
Fr. Widder did not commit immediately, but eventually agreed.
He was paired with Alby, a professional dancer who has studied ballet, tap, jazz, modern and ballroom dancing. Beginning in about January, the pair met weekly at the Sheboygan YMCA – thanks to Donna Wendlandt – who let them use the floor space at no charge.
When Alby first met Fr. Widder, she realized she had a challenge on her hands.
“Yes, Fr. Matthew was not a dancer. He has had absolutely no dance experience,” she said, describing “the huge path he was undertaking when he agreed to compete in the Movers and Shakers Gala here in Sheboygan.”
Calling it a very competitive event, Alby, whose sister, Dionne Landgraf, is parishioner of Fr. Widder’s and organist and accompanist at Sheboygan’s St. Clement, St. Dominic and Holy Name churches, said his natural athletic ability was a help, but “it is not naturally a guarantee that he could execute complex and constantly changing rhythms, not to mention remembering the patterns and order of the various passages.”
As a nod to Fr. Widder’s background growing up on a Sheboygan Falls farm, Alby chose to do the two-step because of its “down home” feel.
“As you probably know, some of the ballroom dances can be ‘suggestive,’ to say the least. I thought that a country dance would be a more wholesome way to go,” she explained, adding that the search for music proved challenging as well since so many county pieces deal with drinking, cheating and guns.
Yet, she found “That Gospel Music” by Marty Stuart, which, she said, “has a wonderful message about this gift of music that can transform and uplift us…. This was truly an answer and a gift to me! From then on I was able to put the choreography together because we had a message to deliver.”
After weeks of practice, the big night finally arrived. Fr. Widder and Alby were the last dancers to perform, and the priest noted butterflies had taken over.
“Since I was the last person, I saw everyone else go and I thought, ‘Wow, everyone is a lot better than me,’” he recalled.
Leibham, the back stage producer for the event, remembers seeing the fear on his face before he went on stage.
“This is not the man we see giving a homily every Sunday,” she said of the nervous priest. “He got out there and did not have that enormous grin on his face.”
But when the music began, Leibham said instincts took over and to the delight of the crowd of 650, including Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki and Frs. Patrick Heppe and Jim Lobacz, Fr. Widder began swinging his lasso and clicking his heels, twirling around the dance floor as if he had been dancing all his life.
“All of a sudden the grin appeared and he looked like the person everyone knows, admires and respects,” said Leibham.
Fr. Widder has a slightly different memory of the moment. According to him, his whole body went numb.
“Once the dance started, I had a sense of calm and in the beginning initially with the rope I was fine, but then my mind went brain dead,” he explained, seemingly forgetting the steps, which at this point were second nature to him.
“When Fr. Matthew and I came onto the floor and our dance was announced, the people cheered so loud that we couldn’t hear our music,” said Alby. “But it all fell into place and we danced from our hearts.”
The audience began clapping to the music and gave them a standing ovation when they were finished.
“Although I had no way of knowing that we would be the winners, I have to say that I knew we had a great routine, felt really good about all the hard work we put into it, and I was so very happy that Fr. Matthew had the courage to use this venue as a vehicle to bless his community,” Alby said.
Leibham attributed Fr. Widder’s win, not only to his dancing performance but to the widespread support he enjoyed. He had the largest base of support, she noted, pointing not only to the approximately seven tables of Holy Name/St. Clement parishioners in the room on the day of the event, but to the large number of people who voted for him online.
While Fr. Widder said the gala probably signals the beginning and end of his dancing career, he said he was pleased to help not only with Lakeland’s fundraising, but was happy to help St. Vincent de Paul.
“I prayed about it,” he said, as he selected a charity to benefit from his win. “St. Vincent de Paul is a beautiful organization because they serve the poorest of the poor and there is a beautiful humility to it as well. So for two reasons it was a great way to get funds to those who serve the most in need and secondly, I think it’s important that the St. Vincent de Paul Society gets a little acknowledgement for the things they are doing.”